jails are full of people who broke small laws. So it isn't difficult to fill up
the jails, these days.
suppose an unjust law is rarely enforced in your area -- what do you do then?
imagine the answer would be to disobey it and say nothing. That's the simple
thing. But there's always the possibility that someone will come along and
arrest you for breaking the law.
give you an example, say your bar is required to sell Miller Lite. This is the
subject of As A Capitalist, I Am Enraged. Now, how does anyone enforce this
rule? Do they check the owner's purchase records to make sure he's ordering
Miller Lite, or do they send around an inspector? "Let's see, you have
Pabst Blue Ribbon, and various local brews -- but no Miller Lite! TO THE STOCKS
nobody enforces the rule, the owner could stop selling Miller Lite and see who
complains. Selling in proportion to demand is perfectly Capitalist. If
there's no demand, there's no problem.
he could buy a twelve-pack, sell it quickly, and then say with complete honesty
that he's fresh out. I'm guessing the law doesn't state how much Miller Lite he
has to offer.
some people follow all laws, even the ones that are rarely enforced, and they
do it not because the live in fear of the enforcers -- it's because they
actually agree with the laws. Many of them were acting as they did before any
such laws were put in place. Should the government vanish or be replaced,
they will act as they always have.
these people are all of us, to some degree, because we are driven by our likes
and dislikes and our conscience, not by law. Those of us who have no career
in law don't think about it all the time; we don't judge the legality of every
single thing we do, or even most things. And most of what we do is perfectly
legal. Right? Surely the law hasn't reached into every single little thing we
don't know. I haven't checked all the laws. Nobody knows all the laws. Mostly
we get by with checking the parts of the law that pertain to what we're doing
-- but we shouldn't have to do that all the time.
the law starts to clash with things we thought were perfectly innocuous --
things like connecting to an unsecured wi-fi network, or singing "happy
birthday" in public -- that's when we have to ask ourselves, which is
more important? The law, or conscience? Because it seems like the law is
proscribing things beyond what seems necessary. Not everything is a moral
decision; some things do not involve the choice between wrong and right.
becomes more problematic when you realize that conscience and morality are
not flawless. Sometimes a law makes perfect sense even if you can't see why --
many of the dumber laws on the books were written when they pertained to
serious issues. For instance, there's a rule in Oregon, I believe, that
requires beasts of burden to wear diapers in certain watershed areas. This is
because back when every cart had its beast of burden, the amount of dung in the
rivers would have caused serious contamination.
which case, the flouting of a stupid (or seemingly stupid) rule is one that
requires careful consideration, because said rule could have been written with
the best of intentions. Such is the case with most of the anti-drug laws.
the same token, the best of intentions does not guarantee the justification of
a law. It is, after all, written by human beings. So the law could make perfect
sense to the person writing it, and little sense to anyone else.
there is the problem of enforcement -- how much is too much? If you ask the
police and the courts and the judge and the local/state/federal government,
they'll probably tell you that we don't have enough yet. So they call in the
SWAT team and break down your door and pile on top of you for...what turns
out to be three ounces of marijuana. This happens.
the SWAT team likes to feel useful, and powerful. Definitely powerful. They
were in a parade in my hometown once, and I learned later that their weapons
I think they don't reimburse you for the broken door, either.
are numerous laws written with the best of intent, and there also numerous laws
written in order to be Tough On Crime. Crime apparently including grafitti.
Certan cities make it illegal to carry broad-tipped markers and sundry
wall-marking material in a public space. That means that between the store and
your car, you're in a public space and you're breaking the law. No recourse.
And you better hope the judge doesn't believe in Zero Tolerance, because Zero
Tolerance policies are specifically designed to remove human judgement from
the sentencing, in order to scare people into obedience. The judge might as
well not be there.
mercy. No humanity.
which case, the case for civil diobedience is stronger and clearer. Carry
bags full of markers. Sing "happy birthday" in public at the top of
your lungs. Break all of the stupid little rules, if you have the time. Make it
clear that you're trying to fill up the jails.
should not have to wonder each day if our actions are illegal. In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi notes that
Iranian women are kept in line by this fear -- it prevented them from thinking
of the bigger questions, like why they were forced to dress conservatively in
the first place.
some places, there may be enough laws on the books that everything we do is
illegal, which means that the police can pick us up for anything anytime, only
needing to charge us with "antisocial behavior" or "disturbing
the peace", which could easily be redefined to "anything I don't
are citizens of the world that calls itself free, and it appears that we have
ended up in the same place as the Iranians. Unless we can rely on the apathy of
the police, which isn’t guaranteed. Sometimes you get a rookie cop who feels he
has to enforce every little law; sometimes you get a cop who likes to feel
I’ve explored the question without ever adequately answering it: What do you do
if an unjust law is rarely enforced? Do you live in fear of the law, and obey
the rule, or do you ignore it and take your chances?